How to Make Life Decisions

In 2010, after the Global Financial Crisis that caused many to lose their wealth, I had an epiphany to develop the “Philosophy of Sufficiency” for my firm. It is the philosophy that anchors the way we plan, invest, and advise our clients.

In sufficiency, you don’t maximise investment returns but seek the most reliable way to achieve enough returns to meet your needs. You don’t overinsure yourself and overpay your insurance premiums but cover yourself adequately at the lowest possible cost. You don’t just save all your surplus for the future but use part of it on important things that must be done today.

So, the “Philosophy of Sufficiency” is also the “Philosophy of Contentment” because contentment is not passive resignation but accepting that you cannot have everything; you actively pursue what is most important for you, knowing that is enough. I call it the “deciding of things that are most important” life decisions. Life decisions are also what I term as “ikigai decisions”.

“Ikigai” is a Japanese word that has been greatly misunderstood. Firstly, it is not a word from Okinawa (it is simply a Japanese word) and not a Japanese secret to longevity. While ikigai can give you the motivation to live and perhaps make your life more enjoyable, it can’t be guaranteed that you’ll live till 100.

And if you search the word on the Internet, I am certain that the first image you will see is a four-circle Venn diagram that shows ikigai as the convergence of four areas of life: what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. But that is nonsense and has nothing to do with the Japanese concept of ikigai. To the Japanese, positioning ikigai as the center of the Venn diagram is a blatant misuse of the word that has cultural significance.

The four-circle Venn diagram was first published in Borja Vilaseca’s 2012 book “Que Harias Si No Tuvieras Miedo” (What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid?). However, the Venn diagram is the work of Spanish astrologer Andres Zuzunaga, who posted it on his Facebook page on 4th June 2012.

But it was Marc Winn, a self-proclaimed mischief-maker, and lover of changing the world, who changed the word “purpose” in the center of the Venn diagram to “ikigai” in 2014 through his blog post titled “What is your ikigai”. He did it after watching the Ted Talk by Dan Buettner, and the post went viral. The four-circle Venn diagram is the Western world’s perspective of ikigai, which is inaccurate. What then is the meaning of ikigai?

Ikigai is made up of two parts, “iki” and “gai”. “Iki” means “life” in Japanese and more specifically can be translated to “lifetime” and “everyday life”. “Gai” means “worth”. Since the concept of ikigai aligns more with everyday life, ikigai means living the day-to-day life that is worth living. To the Japanese, ikigai is not something you chase after to achieve but, rather, something you feel. Living a life that we feel is worth living is one of the best indications that we are living purposefully. It is about the powerful emotions that make life feel worth living.

According to the research by Mieko Kamiya, who is known as the mother of ikigai, there are seven needs to be met to experience “ikigai-kan” (the feelings of a life worth living).

1. Life Satisfaction

Sources of life satisfaction can come from small joys in life, like having our morning coffee uninterrupted or drinking a glass of good wine while reading our favourite book. It can also come from effortful experiences, like overcoming a difficult challenge in life such as running a marathon or graduating with a professional certificate. “Ikigai-kan” can also be experienced when having new experiences such as new activities, going to new places or meeting new people.

Another source of life satisfaction comes from having “yutori”, the Japanese word for “the space to have peace of mind”. When you have yutori, you feel a sense of mental space and freedom from overwhelming thoughts or worries; you have room to think about life and to consider others and enter into a psychological state in which you feel a sense of well-being and life satisfaction.

2. Change and Growth

From her research, Kamiya concluded that as humans, we have a desire to avoid stagnation. When you experience personal growth through embracing change, you can have a sense of fulfilment and ikigai-kan.

3. A Bright Future

The need for a bright future refers to one’s expectation that life will unfold in a new direction and to satisfy this need, one must set and pursue both short-term achievable goals and long-term life-defining ambitions. You may not ultimately achieve them but the pursuit itself can give you ikigai-kan.

4. Resonance

This is about the need to have a social affiliation, the desire to build and maintain meaningful interpersonal relationships, and to be treated by others in an accepting manner. This can be found in the Japanese word “ibasho”, which means “a place where one belongs, fits in and can be oneself”. The word invites you to contemplate who is important to you and how you can find your place in the world. Ibasho can be a physical place where you feel connected to the environment around you (such as a park or even a café) or it can be a social niche, a group of people like yourself, your community where you know you won’t be judged. The Japanese believe that when you have your ibasho, you can have “anshin-kan” or peace of mind.

5. Freedom

The need for freedom means the need to have a sense of control, the feeling of autonomy, and freedom of choice. Without freedom, you may not experience ikigai.

6. Self-Actualisation

The Japanese version of self-actualisation involves having the discipline to improve yourself for the greater good of others. It starts with the acceptance of your own personal limits, and seeks self-development to foster the feeling that your life is propelling forward, leaving you with a sense of ikigai-kan.

7. Meaning and Value

Every human being has a desire or need to feel meaning and value in their life. This urges people to constantly reflect on and justify the meaning of their lives. When you find that meaning, you will have ikigai-kan.

I have often been asked what financial decisions one should make at the beginning of the year. While that is important, it may be even more important to first make life or ikigai decisions. In 2024, what must you do to have life satisfaction, growth, a bright future, and self-actualisation? Do you need to spend more time at or with your Ibasho? What decisions must you make to have more meaning and value in your life and more freedom? Once you have made these decisions, then consider what financial decisions you now must make to enable your life decisions. I believe you will be much happier if you do so.

The writer, Christopher Tan, is Chief Executive Officer of Providend Ltd, Southeast Asia’s first fee-only comprehensive wealth advisory firm and author of the book “Money Wisdom: Simple Truths for Financial Wellness“. He is also a Certified Ikigai Tribe Coach.

The edited version of this article has been published in The Business Times on 22nd January 2024.

For more related resources, check out:
1. Life Decisions First Before Legacy Decisions
2. RetireWell™ Epilogue 2: Retirement – It’s About the Kind of Life You Want to Lead
3. The Providend Conversation: Living the Good Life with Jeshua Soh (Part 1)

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